June 20--CAPE MAY -- The title of a play, The First Fifty Years, sort of jumped off the page while Gayle Stahlhuth was researching something else.
So Stahlhuth, artistic director of the East Lynne Theater Company, one of two Equity theaters in Cape May, began an exhausting search to track down the only known script of the obscure play marriage by Henry Myers that had last been produced on Broadway in 1922.
But finding and eventually bringing such forgotten treasures of the American theater to the stage has been East Lynne's forte for 34 years.
The First Fifty Years opened on June 11 and runs through July 19. The professional productions take place at the First Presbyterian Church of Cape May, where East Lynne operates as an itinerant theater company, often packing in audiences with offerings that run throughout summer and until Christmas. Next up: Zorro!, which premieres July 23 and runs through Aug. 30.
Across town at the Cape May Stage, the other local Equity company -- the actors are professional members of the Actors' Equity Association -- already has one production under its belt this season, The Mountaintop. It will produce five more plays through Dec. 31 at its theater on Lafayette Street. Operating for 26 years and producing plays like Moon Over Buffalo, which opened Wednesday and runs through Aug. 1, and Blithe Spirit, Aug. 6 through Sept. 19, the Cape May Stage usually presents "big-cast comedies and feel-good productions," according to Alicia Grasso, the company's marketing director.
Farther up the coast, the Surflight Theatre in Beach Haven has been a revered entertainment entity on Long Beach Island since 1950, when it started in a leaky tent. After finding its permanent home in the late 1960s and expanding over the years despite various periods of financial turmoil, Surflight still pulls in well-known Broadway actors while offering musical productions and plays centered on popular culture, like Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical and Winnie the Pooh. It also serves as a training ground for young theater students, who often do double duty, acting in a production and working as part of the summer singing service staff at the theater's adjacent Show Place Ice Cream Parlour.
And in the coastal towns sandwiched between Long Beach Island and Cape May, dozens of community theater groups spend summers offering smaller-scale productions or running children's day camps where the play's the thing, not the beach.
That such professional theater companies and community groups have survived over the decades is a true testament that vacationers often seek a side of culture with their main fare of sun and sand when they arrive at the Shore, according to Katalin Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the American Repertory Theater at Harvard University.
"I think that summer theater really enriches the total experience for vacationers, because it's not all books and sand and sea that people want when they go away, no matter where they are visiting," Mitchell said.
It may be that finding and fulfilling a certain entertainment niche is what has kept theaters along the Shore bringing in audiences year after year, according to Mitchell.
"People get used to theaters completing their vacation experience and they look for it every year to see what is playing, what is new," Mitchell said.
Cape May's Stahlhuth agrees.
"It was the dream of East Lynne's founder, the late Warren Kleiwer, that audiences would have the chance to rediscover some of these hidden gems that shaped our American theater heritage," Stahlhuth said. "In a resort like Cape May, where so many people who are interested in history come, it works nicely."
The First Fifty Years was playwright Myers' first success. He went on to write other Broadway shows, including The Happiest Girl in the World in 1961, and numerous Hollywood screenplays over the years, such as Million Dollar Legs in 1932 and Destry Rides Again in 1939.
"There are a lot of challenges, as you can imagine, with producing a play that hasn't been on stage in 92 years," said Stahlhuth, who eventually tracked down the only known script in the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts in New York City.
But the rewards are often found in the surprising relevance of plays like The First Fifty Years, the opening scene of which takes place in 1872 just after the characters' honeymoon and ends when they celebrate their golden wedding anniversary in 1922. The seven acts of the play may have some married couples in the audience squirming in their seats over the poignancy of the dialogue.
"It's hard to believe it was written more than 90 years ago," said Beckley Andrews of New York City, who plays Anne Wells, wife of Martin Wells, played by Australian actor Samuel Douglas Clark. "So much of it is so relevant to today that you would think it had been rewritten for today's audiences. But it hasn't been."
Charlie Siedenburg, a spokesman for Surflight, said finding productions audiences can relate to has always been the key to the Beach Haven theater, which bills itself as "Broadway by the Sea."
"So many people who have gone on to do Broadway have cut their acting teeth at Surflight over the years," Siedenburg said. "We have a lot of talent on our stage in any given season. But I think our longevity has always centered on people wanting to relax and be entertained while they are at the Shore. They are relaxing, but they'd still like some culture while they are at it."
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